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Grandmaman was always there for my brother and I, and for total strangers

Alice Abracen

June 2011

One day, Thérèse Lambert heard humanitarian Stephen Lewis speaking on the radio about his book Race Against Time, in which he describes his struggles amid the AIDS crisis in Africa, and his repeated encounters with grandmothers raising their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren.

From that point, she overcame her physical limitations to toil endlessly in support of African grandmothers, rallying others, complete strangers, to her cause, leading campaigns, sending food and materials overseas, giving speeches and going head to head with reticent politicians.

After becoming an active member of the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers West Hill Group, she set up an independent charity in Malawi, a country in which the foundation had no foothold.

Raising funds with the help of her family, friends and fellow activist grandmothers, her support gradually spread from the village of Mnjale to 24 Malawian villages (and the number is still growing), so that the organization could no longer be called just Mnjale. It needed NGO status and a new name.

The administration in Malawi picked the name the Theresa Foundation, in honour of Thérèse, who passed away Friday, May 27, with so many people left to help, so much left to do, but leaving a legacy that would span generations and continents.

My grandmother was charismatic, generous, unfailingly energetic and deeply compassionate. I never heard her despair about the apathy of my generation, lament the passing of time, the decay of the traditional values with which she was raised, or bemoan her place in society.

Thérèse and her grandson Isaac: she taught them to be “passionate about life.” Photo courtesy of Alice Abracen

Despite having an incredibly rich past, Grandmaman was emphatically a creature of the present. She was wholly engaged with her family, friends and the world around her; this translated into her being there for me when I collapsed on her couch after a gruelling day at school to wake up to tea and cookies; into her being present at every performance, theatrical and musical, in which my brother and I ever participated; into her charismatic, humorous presence at parties and at holidays as she reclined in the La-Z-Boy wearing a Christmas crown; dancing at bar and bat mitzvahs; teaching me the most unique swearwords, such as La Maudite Banane; tireless campaigning on behalf of people we had never met, people across oceans whose cause she championed even if she had to be pushed up Parliament Hill in a wheelchair.

I thought I’d share a few memories about my grandmother.

There’s Grandmaman, forced to abandon singing lessons even though she was a coloratura in her youth, taking to the stage at my mother’s 50th birthday for the first time in decades to sing opera for her daughter. Her voice was softer than it had been in youth—she was 85, but it was still beautiful.

There’s us eagerly phoning her from Pasta Casareccia to inform her about a very attractive young waiter. Her response: “Can you take a picture with your cellphone and send it to me?”

There’s Grandmaman excited for every high holiday at synagogue even though she was brought up a strict Roman Catholic and raised in a convent. She went to synagogue and enjoyed the choir and sang a little even though she didn’t know Hebrew.

There’s Grandmaman, starting three months ago to write a column for The Senior Times, working on an article on the La-Z-Boy in the country, reading aloud to us as she wrote. I quote: “I had been awakened from a beautiful dream, walking hand in hand with my late husband at the seashore. We were both in our 30s and so much in love.” Wherever you are now, Grandmaman, I hope, I know, that’s what you’re seeing.

Finally, there’s Grandmaman protesting on Ste. Catherine in front of the office of an MP while students and grandmothers held signs against the wind and chanted support for a bill that would see drug companies release patented drugs to countries in development at cheaper prices; it was soundly supported by the Stephen Lewis and Theresa Foundation.

A public-relations executive arrived as an ambassador from the office to explain the absent politician’s position regarding the bill. One of the students argued vociferously and unrelentingly, but it was Grandmaman who instantly commanded awed respect as she intervened, her voice strong against the wind even though she was several feet below the rest of us, sitting in her wheelchair, wrapped tightly in a blanket.

I remember thinking, most people of a certain age, of any age, would rather be home on a day like this. And yet here she is, and she’s drawn us out with her. And here we are protesting. And you know what? That bill was passed. The MP ultimately supported it.

My grandmother taught me the importance of daring the stage, the importance of indefatigable joie de vivre, the appreciation of my dual heritage, the art of trying something new, and that you are never socially impotent—whether you are a pensioner afflicted by arthritis or a perpetually busy student, you can always make a difference in this world.

Most of all, I hope she passed on to me that quality of being “passionate about life.” More than anything, this drove my grandmother; she was passionate about her own life, the lives of those she loved, the lives of people across the world.

She always believed in me, in my never-ending ability to do anything. It could be very annoying at times. May each and every one of you have someone like my mother in your lives, someone who believes in you unconditionally, and if you don’t, try to be that kind of person for someone else. That is what my mother would want.

Over the past three shocking, extraordinary weeks, many friends and loved ones tried to comfort us by saying: “Well, she certainly lived a long, full life.” And as you know, she did. But that doesn’t mean she was ready to leave it. She wasn’t. She had a lot more left to do, and told us so on several occasions, especially in regard to the grandmothers in Africa. She had more life to live—because she had such an appetite for living.

But she didn’t just devour all that life had to offer, she in turn fed all those around her, literally and metaphorically. Many people came up to us at the funeral home to tell us the ways in which they’d been touched by my mother—and so many said that she had believed in them when no one else did, especially themselves—and how important her faith in them was.

My mother had many passions in her life—my father—who died so many years ago, but were he alive they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary today. And they would have celebrated. She was passionate about music, about art and about people. One of the many things we had in common was a love of observing, and eavesdropping on, human beings in all their possible permutations. Her greatest passion was her children and grandchildren.

My mother’s life was not easy. Despite her great appetite for it, she had more than her fair share of disappointments. She wanted to be an opera singer—and definitely had a voice—but never could afford the training the profession required. But, being who she was, she sang along with her beloved operas her entire life, and instilled an appreciation of the arts in her family that will live in generations to come.

She regretted not having a university degree, but went back to school in her 50s and almost finished a bachelor’s in translation. She educated herself every day of her life in myriad ways—as a voracious reader, an enthusiastic traveler, devoted student of the human condition.

She had a great fear of doctors and hospitals—but as she often used to say to Alice, her granddaughter—the brave ones are those who are really scared but do what they’re most scared of anyway. In these last few weeks, she was determined to see or talk to as many people she loved as possible, and who loved her. She would ask them first and foremost how they were—and remember some detail, some event or some trouble going on in their lives with a memory as sharp and lucid as it ever was.

She courageously asked the doctor for the bad news straight up—and although I don’t want to imagine what she was feeling, she faced her last, surreal days in the hospital—and I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true—with barely a complaint.

My mother and I had a great love affair. It was love at first sight. Then, the turbulent teenage years and 20s, the intense ride of marriage and children, then the joy and challenge of old age. We did it all together with great affection and great love.

Simone de Beauvoir said: “One’s life has value so long as we attribute value to the life of others … by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” My mother led a very valuable life. I didn’t even come close to saying what I wanted to, but if Mom were here, she would say: “You did just fine, Ann. Because it’s you.”



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